what i’ve been reading lately

Yesterday I made a shocking discovery.

(For a book-lover, that is.)

I was rummaging through my bookshelves, trying to find something for work. When I suddenly realized that I had completely failed myself.

I hadn’t organized a single book I’d read since I became a mom.

Allow me to back up for a minute. Of course I’ve shelved all the books I own. (It took us months longer to get settled into this new house when we moved with two teeny kids, but I did manage to get that essential unpacking done in short order.)

And of course, the book geek in me did find time to arrange by genre: all the theological tomes together on one towering bookshelf in my office, fiction on another, poetry and art history on a third, and old French paperbacks (and even a few of my husband’s books I let him sneak in) on the fourth. Perfect, right?

Wrong.

Because here’s the full geeky truth: the only way I really want my books arranged is autobiographical.

(When John Cusack whispered that same line about his record collection in High Fidelity, I swooned.)

I’ve done this ever since I was a little girl. I kept books together on the shelf that I read at the same time (because of course, true book lovers are always reading more than one book at a time). And as I finished each book, I filled up the row.

I loved looking back and remembering the serendipitous connections I’d made between books – the novels I read during that winter, the poetry I dove into after that breakup. My life made sense through books, and my shelves told the story.

Fast-forward a few years? I’m lucky if I find a home for the stacks of books that (still, to my husband’s dismay) steadily enter our house year after year. Now when I finish something, it sits on my nightstand for six months, then on the floor of my office for a few more weeks, and finally – in the last-minute flurry before visitors are coming over – I shove it thoughtlessly onto the shelf where most people would assume it belongs: novels with novels, non-fiction with non-fiction, and so forth.

So since I became a mom, I have no record of what I’ve read. Fail.

It’s not looking good for my housekeeping skills to improve any time soon, especially not with #3 on the way. But I realized that I could still chronicle my reading adventures if I only wrote them down somewhere. This combined with the fact that I’ve gotten some of my favorite recent reads from other bloggers’ suggestions means that I’m inspired to pull together the list of what I’ve been reading lately (or rather, what I’ve read since the beginning of this pregnancy, because – let’s face it – pregnant women are obsessed with documenting the passage of those long weeks till the due date.)

And because I’m always eager to get new suggestions, I’d love to know what you’ve been reading lately, too! Make no mistake: we’ve got many months of winter to go in Minnesota, and I need all the good reads I can get while the wind howls through the blizzard outside.

So without further ado, here’s what I’ve been reading. The beginnings of a virtual, chronological bookshelf of reading through maternity (five years after this journey started):

What I read to make myself feel better at the beginning:

Let’s start serious. Pregnancy after loss is hard and dark. I needed help and hope to boost my spirits during that tentative first trimester. Roxane recommended After Miscarriage: A Catholic Woman’s Companion to Healing & Hope, and I was so glad I took her advice. This small book is a comforting collection of stories and suggestions, gentle and healing, about grieving and opening yourself up to the possibility of another child. I’d highly recommend to any mom who’s suffered a miscarriage.

Moving on. (My sense of humor is too twisted to stay in the melancholy forever.) When I was sick beyond anything you’d want to imagine in those first few weeks, I could barely make it out of bed some days (and every evening). Curled up with my trusty Kindle, I tried to find any offerings from our library’s e-collection that would take my mind off the gut-wrenching reality that is me in the 1st trimester. And I came across this – riveting? harrowing? choose your clichéd but true adjective here – story of a catastrophic climb up Mt. Everest in 1996. I flew through Into Thin Air, grateful for every awful description of altitude sickness and toes lost to frostbite, because it reminded pitiful, pathetic moi that things could be much, much worse. Always a good lesson.

Anyone who knows me in real life knows I never care if I’m late to the party. Even if I’m years late. I Don’t Know How She Does It was so hyped when it came out a decade ago that I was too annoyed to read it then. But – returning to pathetic, pukey me confined to my comforter – I came across this one from the aforementioned e-library offerings and decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

I hated this book. The narrator’s frenzied descriptions of her life as a working mom stressed me out just reading them. And yet I made myself finish it, just to see how things turned out. (Which proves to you how desperate I was for distraction.) But it’s still worth remembering on my chronological shelf since it does define one image of motherhood our culture is wrestling with today: the woman who tries to have it all.

What I read when I started feeling 2% better:

For me, the second trimester doesn’t bring so much relief as sheer annoyance at how long I’ve been feeling sick. So once I made myself get out of bed for good, I stopped reading solely on the Kindle and started dipping into real paper books again. These three were perfect to read in short snippets (even while pretending to hide in the bathroom – let’s be honest about how mothers of young kids sneak in their reading time).

I adored this book. Katrina Kenison’s writing is beautiful, and I’d long admired it from afar. These short pieces in Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry felt like deep breaths in my frenzied days, like sitting down with a dear friend over a warm cup of tea. Katrina is wise and real and thoughtful and inviting, and when I reluctantly finished the last essay, I started scheming which book of hers to read next. I wish I could buy this for every mom I know.

I doubt I would have ever read this book if a dear friend hadn’t literally dropped it in my lap. I’d heard of Nadiz Bolz-Weber in the blogosphere and appreciated some of her radical Jesus-thoughts as an edgy Lutheran pastor. But I’d never spent any real time with her writing until Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. And I thoroughly enjoyed it: thought-provoking, challenging, laugh-out-loud hysterical at points.

This memoir-ish collection of essays made me think hard about bad habits it can be easy to fall into as a person of faith – I especially loved her notion that whenever we draw a line between ourselves and another group to declare ourselves in the moral right, Jesus usually winds up looking back at us from the other side – and I’m so glad I took a chance on a book I probably never would have picked up otherwise.

Another book I wish I could give to every parent I know, new or experienced. On a rare bookstore jaunt at summer’s end, I found this volume tucked in the back of the poetry section. I tend to be wary of poetry collections (too often full of the schmaltzy and sentimental), but I was drawn to flip through this one and immediately I ran up to the counter to buy it.

Morning Song: Poems for New Parents is a wonderful collection of poems celebrating everything from conception and birth to sleepless nights and first steps. But the poems chosen so thoughtfully by its editors resonate far beyond the first year and the first year. These are classic and contemporary poets reflecting on the deepest truths of what it means to bring new life into the world. I’m still savoring this one.

What I’m reading now:

Eowyn Ivey’s incredible novel The Snow Child almost convinced me that the frozen north is a beautiful place to live. I’ve rarely read such vivid, poetic descriptions of the land as a character (1920′s Alaska, in this case), and her creative spin on the traditional fairy tale versions of a heart-breaking story about a childless couple and the fantastical child that changes their life was simply a gem to read. One of those where you let out the long sigh when you finish the last page, wishing it weren’t over. This book was brutal and surprising and nothing what I expected when I started reading, but I won’t soon forget it.

A few years ago, I started noticing a pattern in my favorite essays from Notre Dame Magazine. They were all by Brian Doyle. Then his words started showing up in reflections in Give Us This Day, and I read his words again in the National Catholic Reporter, and I started wondering why I’d never sat down with a good stack of this man’s brilliance?

Oh my.

This book is incredible. I’m savoring it in small bites, like one of those delicious restaurant desserts you want to make last, and I’m elbowing my husband in bed every other night to make him read one of the zinger reflections in Grace NotesThis will assuredly not be the last book I read by Brian Doyle. (Here are a few teasers to convince you.)

Sarah Jobe’s theological reflection on the joys and pains of pregnancy is the other book vying for my attention on my nightstand these days. In a bittersweet way, her book’s title – Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy – rings even truer for me today than when I first bought it for myself, back in late July when I was delighting in the prospect of baby #3. When we lost that baby, the confusing become much more real. For months I couldn’t pick this book up, remembering how excited I had been to buy it, my treat to myself to get through that first trimester of blech and burden. But just a few days ago I came across it again (at the bottom of a stack in my unorganized office – see, dear reader, it all comes full circle!). And I’m so glad I decided to jump in.

The author writes in such a thoughtful, unsentimental way about the power of pregnancy as an experience of co-creation with God, of bearing the marks of Christ, and of embodying the practices that draw us closer to the Spirit. Much more to say about this in weeks to come; she’s really got me thinking about pregnancy in a whole new light. (Every other page is underlined or dotted with exclamation points, so you know it’s good stuff.)

So there you have it: nearly 22 weeks of reading. What will the next 18 bring? Only the library and my Kindle can tell… But I want your suggestions!

What are you reading these days?

a round-up of labor day thoughts

How will you celebrate your work today?

Here are a few ways to honor the labor you do, whether out in the world or behind closed doors:

Look at laundry in new light to see how every day is a labor day.

Remember the ordinary, extraordinary labor that brought each of us into this world.

Consider how God works, too: bakingsweeping, washinggathering, or hosting.

Take a page from my pastor on making room for kids in the midst of our work:

It’s adorable, of course, to watch a tall man in flowing robes lean over to talk to a tiny toddler. But sometimes I wonder if we let these interactions change us, if we who are parents let ourselves learn from our pastor.

I admit that I don’t always make such gracious space in my work for my children.

They pull over chairs to the counter in the middle of my dinner prep, and I sigh because little hands will now make a mess in the flour and steal veggies off the cutting board.

They show up at my elbow while I’m writing and ask to sit on my lap, and I grumble because I’m in the middle of finishing an important project with a pressing deadline.

They appear in the middle of folding laundry or sweeping floors or washing dishes, and I mistake the real work for the chore at my hands, not the moment unfolding in front of my eyes…

Read the rest at CatholicMom.com

Check out our suggestions of hymns and blessings for Labor Day from the Collegeville Institute Seminars.

And these awesome Labor Day prayers written by my friend Genevieve at the USCCB.

Finally, treat yourself to this beautiful song by Carrie Newcomer on the holiness of everyday work. I’ve loved her music for a long time, but the beauty of her voice and words have become healing for me this past month:

Holy is the dish and drain

The soap and sink, and the cup and plate

And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile

Shower heads and good dry towels

And frying eggs sound like psalms

With bits of salt measured in my palm

It’s all a part of a sacrament

As holy as a day is spent

God of the hosting

On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.

Isaiah 25:6

Let’s see. Days’ handful still
to go and so
much left here to be done.
The gathering of food and drink,
the trimming up of yard and home,
final invites, last sweep and mop of floor.
Making ready for a feast always demands
all that I have to give
and more, late nights spent
making lists, too many turns around dark kitchen
puttering and putting house to rest
only to rise again with to-do on my mind.

Endless preparation — do they ever guess
the time it takes,
those I welcome at the door,
embrace with kiss and laugh
and can-I-take-your-coat?
Behind the scenes is where the spread
takes life: the quiet rolling of the silverware
in napkins and the careful press of linen
wrinkles smoothed by iron’s steam.

Sometimes I wish that I could be the guest:
the ones arriving eager, ignorant
of sweat and hours poured into the party,
those who taste and savor,
do not spy undusted shelves
or frown at pie that browned too long.
I envy innocence
of answering and not inviting.

But over years hosting became a life,
the way to keep heart widened
like door creaked open in the winter cold,
wet snow stamped in
on boots piled high to dry
while party swells and spills
into the basement, front porch,
following wherever wine and laughter flow.

I love a crowd, the jostle
welcoming unlikely crew –
friends and in-laws, uninvited 
stragglers perched on couches
balancing full plates on napkinned knees,
squeals of children weaving between legs
of grown-ups clustered in the kitchen,
heart where warmth and good smells always grow.

Right here’s the rub that hosting brings
each year when holidays ring round again:
the joy of drawing close, of living for a night
the way we ought to love all year –
with beauty, generosity,
all energy on evening, no worry of tomorrow.
Just the small sweet joy
of many underneath one roof,
tired satisfaction sharing
all the good my life can give.

God of the baking

And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Luke 13:20-21

Here’s why I love to bake:
You start with nothing –
an idea, ingredients
of possibility, a plan and hope.
You slowly start to mix
measure and pour,
the transformation stirring with your spoon.
And suddenly it starts to look
and smell and taste alive –
creation sticky in my hands,
smeared between my fingers,
streaked across my hair.

The baker’s art takes patience,
planning, careful watch of
oven’s heat, directions’ time.
Forgiveness, too –
for cake that falls, deflated;
recipes that failed to rise.

Baking’s best as company affair:
Sometimes I cook with children –
grabbing cups and spoons to spill,
enthusiasm trumped only by sugar.
I sit and watch the wise work, too –
laughing, telling stories while they bake
with wrinkled hands,
forearms strong from years of kneading dough.

I ought to say that sharing is the best part –
breaking loaf and offering steaming slice in love.
But secretly I like to chew in silence:
taste alone the crunch of crust,
sink of teeth in softer middle’s heart.
Because creation’s sweetest in still morning
before the rest wake round me
greeting day with yawn and groan.
I love to feed their bellies,
but I need to rise alone.

God of the dishes

Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me.

Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure;

wash me, make me whiter than snow.

A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.

Psalm 51: 4, 9, 12

Dirty dishes stacked so high,
porcelain towers on my right and left.
I take the sponge in hand,
wring out the water, squeeze on soap,
and crank the faucet hot.
Steam rises as the stream heats, steady
I plunge plates and cups
into the bubbles swirled below.
Swish, wash, rinse, repeat;
the stack grows smaller as I go,
plates now neat and nestled
drying silent in the rack.
My hands turn pink and bright in sink's hot bath;
my fingers pruned and white by end of night.

Long ago I ate alone:
the solitary rinse of single
spoon and knife and fork.
These days I’m elbow deep in pans,
scrubbing steel pots ringed
thick with soup, browned casseroles
of dinners passed with family, friends
all those who gather for my meals.

Cynics see the stubborn cycle
of the grimy, gooey junk
caked hard on dishes left to sit too long
(pardon my love of lingering one last glass)
as dirty proof of life’s depressing rut:
the endless drag of meals and mouths to feed,
a plate’s only escape the break
that sends it swiftly to the bin.

But I delight in dishes,
love the dirty and the clean:
how they slide in slippery hands
before I scrub in circles swift,
how they flash with water’s drip
each time I lift them up to rise,
inspecting both sides slick and sheen,
then dry them satisfied.

For dishes prove that someone shared the meal,
that there was food to pass,
safe time to spare.
Companions, plenty and a pause
are no small good
in world of loneliness, 
want, rush and fear.
And if I'd none to wash,
that would mean no one took the cup.
What a tidy, terrible mistake
that empty would have been.

God of the sweeping

Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, “Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.” In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

Luke 15: 8-10

Every night I take the broom in hand,
both of us worn and tired
but still working.
As I stretch out arms
to reach the bristles’ brush,
the steady rhythm comes back easy,
drag of dirt across familiar floor.

Every day it slides the same:
crumbs, hair, dust, food 
all piled into tidy heaps
left waiting for the bin.
One swift dump, then goodbye.
But making clean is holy work –
refreshing for another day,
forgiving what is past and gone.
To gather, to release 
and then repeat
makes way, always
for one day more.

I know the time it takes,
the pattern of the pulling
corners into center,
how to turn and switch
the broom’s direction when the grit is stubborn.
Sometimes I even do my sweeping in the dark
when all the world’s asleep.

Only when I lose the precious
slipped under couch,
rolled into corner dark
or simply disappeared –
then only do I blaze the lights,
look steady as I clean, search
focused on the finding,
knowing work that will not fail.

But if I did not sweep each day,
memorize these floors,
their stains and scuffs,
then I could not seek what’s lost
when it’s the coin that matters most.
So thus it was and always must it be:
pull creaky closet door to find old broom,
swish brush, brush swish
reach pull, pull reach
and then again to rest.

what i learned on my summer vacation

The fridge is empty, last night’s laziness having triumphed over practicality’s grocery run to replenish.

The children are stirring early, time zones and travel having thrown off their inner clocks.

The laundry looms large, shirts sticky with sunscreen and ice cream and sand.

We’re home.

A whirlwind of wedding; a long, lazy stretch of beach; a week of family. In a summer when our attention has been turned inward – boxes still begging to be unpacked, house projects clamoring for every second we can spare – what a breath of fresh air it was to leave. To relax, to recenter, to enjoy being together.

To do nothing and then rest afterward.

We’ve traveled a fair amount with kiddos in our short years as parents, and we learn from every trip. Yet perhaps the wisest move my husband has made is to book our flights with a Saturday return, giving us plenty of time for reentry before Monday morning. It’s the utter opposite of my travel philosophy (“cram every possible ounce of fun into every last second,” which has, coincidently, resulted in more than one squealing-to-the-curb, sprinting-to-the-gate, screaming-from-the-stress airport arrival). But I’ve come to love it.

Soaking up the Sunday sunrise on my back porch, typing away with no toddler tugging at my sleeve, I’m reveling in one last day of vacation before work calls tomorrow. Today I’ll write. He’ll tend the garden. We’ll play outside.

I’ve got plenty I want to blog about from the past week – don’t we always learn lots from our summer vacations? – but all that can wait for one more day.

Because, to coin a phrase from an old parenting poem I love, the laundry and groceries can wait till tomorrow. For holidays end, as I’ve learned to my sorrow.

So quiet down, cleaning. Routine, go to sleep.

I’m still on vacation. And vacations don’t keep.

christmas: odes and oratorios

Well, so that is that.
Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes -
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week -
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully -
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.

(from W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, Part III)

Oh, Christmas. You lovely, frantic whirlwind of family and travel and presents and cookies and feasts and carols and lights and surprises.

Every year you are the same, and every year you are different.

We gather round the same warm table while the children, inches taller, dote on this year’s bright-eyed baby.

We tell old stories and old jokes amid new worries and wonders. Jobs have changed, addresses have changed, relationships have changed. But we still laugh at and with and because of each other.

We look back on a year past and look ahead to a year coming. The youngest asks everyone to name their favorite Christmas present. The oldest asks everyone to name their favorite Christmas memory.

Your traditions – even the ones we claim as sacred – change from year to year.

We rush the little ones to the nativity play on Christmas Eve. Or we bundle up in starry cold for midnight Mass. We go to bed early, knowing the Santa-seekers will be up before dawn. Or we stay up late to stack the living room with surprises, slurping down the milk and crunching the cookies to keep the magic alive.

Every year, dear Christmas, we bring you wishes, though they range from silly to serious.

This year I secretly hoped you’d bring me quiet moments amid the jovial family chaos – time to write, time to read. Instead you brought each-day-busier-than-the-last until I finally sank back into the fullness of my life like a cozy armchair near the fire. You gave me a reason to gather with those I love dearest. Being present to them was gift enough.

You reminded me of this year’s blessings. A darling, healthy baby after a long, dark, sick winter of waiting. A blue-eyed wonder of a boy whose very presence reminds me of Christmas promise after Advent longing. And a partner whose homecomings make the absence bearable and the delight at being family all the more joy-filled.

So tonight, as we return home from one family, ready to launch tomorrow to the next, you remind me that the madness was worth it – the baby that screamed on planes to and fro, the late nights of packing and wrapping and cleaning and cooking, the inevitable bumps of many families jumbled together under one roof.

Because it was all so human.

And if there were ever a holiday to celebrate our beautiful, messy, maddening humanity, Christmas it is. 

To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

parenting in advent: 4th sunday

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.  And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:26-31)

The announcement of a child’s arrival rarely comes the way we planned.

For some it is an utter shock – unexpected, unplanned, unprepared. For others it is the culmination of years of trying – astonishment, delight, but still surprise.

Sometimes the news is revealed in the quiet of one’s own home, a breathless waiting for the lines to appear on the test. Sometimes it is announced in the sterile light of the doctor’s office. Sometimes it breaks into everyday life with a phone call or a letter that the long-awaited child is here.

But the news is never quite as we expected.

When we are far from parenting’s beginning, we picture how the announcement might look, feel, or sound, and how we will share it with others in turn. But the reality – the years of infertility, or the recurring miscarriages, or the “oops!” baby, or the failed adoption – can be darker shades of grey than we ever imagined. And even when the child is hoped for, longed for, prayed for, we still find ourselves overwhelmed by emotions. Joy. Fear. Love. Anxiety. Wonder. Despair. Hope.

Parents often find themselves younger or older than they would have liked. They don’t have the money or the job or the partner or the resources to raise the child in the way they wanted. They ask, “How can this be?” They wonder how they will bear the news. They grieve the loss of their former life even as they prepare for the future to come.

“The world is never ready for the birth of a child,” wrote one of my favorite poets. It has always been such: parents have never felt fully prepared, completely ready, absolutely certain that they knew what they were getting themselves into.

Zechariah was troubled. Joseph was troubled. Mary was deeply troubled. Each had to lay aside expectations of what a child or a family or a parent should look like. Each had to give themselves entirely to trust in a strange and surprising God. Life was never the same after the news.

Is this Advent’s reminder to us, year after year? That Christmas is never quite what we expected, either. That our plans are not always God’s plans. That we can only prepare so much before giving over to trust in our surprising God, for whom nothing is impossible.

Our hopes and dreams for ourselves, our children, our lives all exist within God’s greater dream of love for us. A love which we will never fully understand or grasp or even imagine. A love which will challenge us and demand from us things we never wanted to give. A love which asks us to trust what we cannot see.

May delivery be easy,

may our child grow and be well.

Let him be happy from time to time

and leap over abysses.

Let his heart have strength to endure

and his mind be awake and reach far.

But not so far

that it sees into the future.

Spare him

that one gift,

0 heavenly powers.

 - from “A Tale Begun” by Wislawa Szymborska

prelude to a baptism: first baths

I love with an almost fearful love
to remember the first baths I gave him…

…I’d tell him about his wonderful body
and the wonderful soap, and he’d look up at me,
one week old, his eyes still wide
and apprehensive…

…I love that time
when you croon and croon to them, you can see
the calm slowly entering them, you can
sense it in your clasping hand,
the little spine relaxing against
the muscle of your forearm, you feel the fear
leaving their bodies…

from Sharon Olds, “Bathing the New Born”